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How the West Was Won (1962) Revisited

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How the West Was Won

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Plenty of bang for the buck in this extravagant, academy award winning epic with multiple stars and directors, too. Baby-boomers who want to relive their childhoods might want a second look. No excuse is necessary, however. It is difficult for those of us with the hum-drum lives in the dark to know what our betters are up to, and why, every once in a while, they decide to pull out all the stops. But that is what they did. The result consists of three segments, all star-studded, presented in Cinerama, directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall. It all begins with an overture, an artsy still of a stagecoach, and goes on to include several musical scenes, plus, interspersed, orchestrated, vintage folk songs. "Home in the Meadow" supplies the leitmotif.

Maybe it's just me. But it seems as though the West was best in its verdant, Edenic, pre-Columbian beginning. The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, was a big deal. Pioneers traveled by waterways. Hence, the extended action sequence with the rapids. The younger nation was not yet overheated with a Civil War, Gold Fever, or Six-Guns. The Hollywood version of friendly card players on board a riverboat, with Gregory Peck as Cleve Van Valen, dressed to the hilt, and so well-mannered besides, is as good as it gets. For contrast, "Cave Dwellin' Varmints" is the title of a segment presided over by Walter Brennan as a total skunk. The all-good Jimmy Stewart character has to toss an ax at somebody's back to get the better of him.

After an Intermission and an Entr'Acte, a generation has passed on and new lives have come into full bloom. Now, the Civil War takes center stage. The filmmakers choose Shiloh to illustrate its deadly futility. It is April 6, 1862. Sherman (John Wayne) and Grant are talking things over. Grant is pessimistic. The fate of the nation, it would seem, hinges on the outcome of two listeners. One is from Ohio, another from Texas, the latter of whom tries in vain to assassinate Grant. Just as in reality the Indian Wars superseded the Civil War, so do they occur on film, only with the added element of the Railroad. The Chief of the Arapahoes is played by a member of the Black Elk clan. They are skittish and reject the notion that Whites will be just passing through.

Some of these characters, such as Eve Prescott (Carroll Baker), are well crafted, with only a few short strokes, and others are simply too big in terms of star power to fail, but the show somehow goes on without them. They disappear as new characters take their places enmeshed in newer situations. At the end, it is pretty much Zeb (George Peppard) contra Charlie (Eli Wallach). The latter is another of Wallach's reincarnations of somebody's worst nightmare from south of the border. I still sometimes feel that the West was won in spite of itself, that nobody had a clear understanding of what was happening, either in the short run or the long. But a more opulent rendition of history, hokum, or something in between, is hard to come by measured against this ambitious western.

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